Court Deals Blow to Columbia’s $6.3 Billion Harlem Land Grab (Updated)


A State Court of Appeals decided this afternoon that New York State was wrong to grant Columbia University eminent domain rights that enabled it to seize land from property owners whose businesses were located in the footprint of the university’s expansion.

This ruling marks the culmination of a protracted legal battle over the fate of West Harlem.

Only three property owners are directly impacted by the decision. In nine years, Columbia has managed to buy out all but three of the businesses in the neighborhood. Now the owners of two gas stations on 125th Street, and Nick Sprayregan, the wealthy owner of Tuck-it-Away Storage who financed the lawsuit, will get to stay put.

But as a check on a large and controversial public-private project that Columbia’s been steamrolling since it first announced its expansion plans in 2001, the suit may have greater significance.

We’re reading the sixty-five page ruling now.

Update: Reached by phone today, Nick Sprayregen told the Voice, “This decision is a victory for private property owners that have faced such abuse. It’s outrageous. I am fortunate that I have the resources to take them on.”

Here are some notable sections from today’s 3-2 decision, in the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, which annulled the state’s granting of eminent domain rights to Columbia University:

Writing for the majority, Judge James Catterson found that the state had made a decision to allow Columbia to annex 17 acres in Manhattanville early on, knowing that Columbia — and not the public — would be the main beneficiary of the project.

“The record demonstrates,” Catterson wrote, “that EDC [The city’s Economic Development Corporation] committed to rezoning Manhattanville, not for the goal of general economic development or to remediate an area that was ‘blighted’ before Columbia aquired over 50 percent of the property, but rather solely for the expansion of Columbia itself.”

According to today’s ruling, the state gave Columbia a significant amount of control from the get-go, using Columbia consultants and engineers to survey the project, and bypassing competing development plans. (The mention of the competing community plan, called the 197-A plan, was omitted from critical documents until 2007, per page 24 of the decision.)

Once the decision was made to give the land to Columbia, the state “was compelled to engineer a public purpose for a qunitessentially private development: eradication of blight,” wrote Catterson.

The area had never been considered blighted before Columbia came to own it, the judge wrote. He called the blight designation “mere sophistry.” “It was utilized by ESDC [The Empire State Development Corporation] years after the scheme was hatched to justify the employment of eminent domain. But this project has always primarily concerned a massive capital project for Columbia. Indeed, it is nothing more than economic development wearing a different face.”

This court case comes on the heels of a related case involving the Freedom of Information Act. Sprayregan and his lawyer, former Public Advocate candidate Norman Siegel, had sued to gain access to the correspondence between Columbia, Columbia’s hired engineering consultants, and New York state (We wrote about this last year, in an article on Columbia scientist Klaus Jacob.)

In August 2007, a New York County Supreme Court Judge forced the state’s Empire State Development Corporation to release the documents, and found that the consultant “lacked sufficient neutrality due to its role as a consultant for both ESDC and Columbia.” In today’s decision, the appeals court relied on many of the documents which came to light in the previous lawsuit.

Photo via WeAct.

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